Feb. 18, 2014, 1:09 p.m.View more articles
After a long, tense wait, Jade Rabbit has reportedly resumed contact with Earth. The Chinese rover landed on the Moon’s surface late last year, and had been expected to explore the lunar landscape for around 3 months. But to the dismay of mission scientists and enthusiastic onlookers worldwide, the rover suffered a severe technical breakdown in late January, and few expected it to recover. In an online message written from the perspective of Jade Rabbit itself, the rover bid the world goodbye. “I am aware that I might not survive this lunar night,” the message read. “Goodnight Earth, goodnight humanity.” Now, however, it seems Jade Rabbit may have survived after all.
When the rover touched down safely back in December 2013, China became just the third country in history to land something on the Moon, and the first to do so since 1976. Jade Rabbit’s first month went smoothly: after spending some time testing its equipment and photographing the lunar surface, it successfully powered down and went into “sleep” mode, switching to a dormant state in preparation for the approaching lunar night. Due to the way the Moon turns on its axis, a single lunar night lasts over two weeks, during which time temperatures plummet to well below freezing. By partially shutting itself down, Jade Rabbit protected its essential systems against the extreme cold, allowing it to make it through to dawn undamaged.
It was on the eve of the second lunar night, however, that disaster struck. For reasons unknown, the rover’s nighttime preparations failed, leaving it exposed to the harsh conditions. Experts concluded that, this time, Jade Rabbit would be unable to re-start itself, and it seemed that the rover’s epic journey had been brought to an unfortunate and premature end. But in a surprising twist, the Chinese space agency has reportedly re-established communications with the stricken robot, raising the possibility that it may yet complete its landmark mission. Meanwhile, Chinese engineers are working hard, analysing Jade Rabbit’s technical failures to ensure that the country’s next lunar rover – due to launch in 2015 – does not run into the same difficulties.